I agree with Steve Hayward that (1) Donald Trump’s decision to skip Thursday’s presidential debate looks more like a blunder than a stroke of genius, but (2) in light of the way Trump has gone from success to unorthodox success, we should be reluctant to conclude he has blundered here.
The polls suggest that Trump is ahead of Ted Cruz in Iowa, but that Cruz is within striking distance. If this is the state of play, then someone in Trump’s position could be expected not to do anything that might shake up the race.
Debating on Thursday isn’t at all likely to shake up the race. Skipping the debate could.
It’s true that Trump isn’t that good of a debater — certainly not as good as Cruz. But Trump is improving and, in my view, got the better of Cruz in their last debate, thanks to his defense of New York.
(Chris Cillizza has shown that Trump’s poll standing declined a little after three of the first four debates and a lot after Carly Fiorina savaged him in the other.) However, his standing in Iowa improved after the most recent one.
But even if Trump thinks he might again slip a little as a result of debating on Thursday, participating in the affair seems like a better play than risking a shake up in a race he is leading (I’m assuming here that Trump believes the polls that show him ahead — an assumption that seems consistent with the candidate’s public obsession with polls).
Why, then, is Trump taking a pass? Who knows? Maybe he has engaged in the same kind of calculus described above and come up with a different answer (John’s comment on Steve’s post shows why Trump reasonably might have arrived at such an answer). Maybe he’s that angry with Megyn Kelly and/or Fox News (though I doubt it). Maybe for no other reason than that he can.
My guess is that Trump’s gut, as opposed to any calculation, told him that holding a Twitter poll and abiding by the result (always likely to be “don’t debate”) would best serve his interests.
Trump says that following his dust-up with Megyn Kelly last fall, he sought the counsel of his older sister Maryanne Trump Barry, who happens to be a federal appellate judge. According to Trump, she told him “Just be yourself and you do well, really well.”
The advice has proved to be sage so far, and I think this is what Trump is doing here — just being himself. It may be as simple as that.